Elvis (2022)

⭐⭐⭐ (3 stars out of 5)

Elvis (2022) Directed by Baz Luhrmann

There are not a few, but several particular moments in this festive hymn to the king of rock and roll in which you can energetically hear a mixture of modern hip hop in the 50’s as if it were a musical solecism, that’s when you become aware that you are not only in a sonorous extravaganza but also in one of the anachronistic worlds of the singularly eccentric Baz Luhrmann. Making a biographical drama is hard enough, but making an Elvis biographical musical is a daunting challenge. However, just knowing that Baz Luhrmann is the one orchestrating this garish film, the difficulties begin to turn into opportunities for the ebullient Australian director to fully enjoy the overexposure of his idiosyncrasies, many ridiculously beautiful and others perhaps a bit too stupid. It’s not the kind of film I was expecting in terms of biographical cinema, yet I won’t be hypocritical to say I wasn’t elated to see an ecstatic director like Baz take on this project either; in some ways I feel he is the best suited to convey the rebelliousness and resonant passion of Elvis Presley to the big screen. Elvis will be a particularly palatable multi-colored candy for anyone familiar with Luhrmann’s cinematic follies, for others its maximalism will be very quaint; for me, it’s the kind of film you can’t judge by its excesses but by its results, and obviously the results are, if exhausting, brilliant.

However, that brilliance has immediate limits, and as a result, it is an erratic film. Once the purposes and finalities of this extravagant production are established, one realizes that the grandiloquence of its distinctive aesthetic falls far short of the scale of someone as relevant to popular culture as the great Elvis Presley. There isn’t a minute of this film where I felt like I was really watching a film about Elvis for Elvis, and…his fans. There are many times where the principles of auteurism must be relegated in order to really delve into the significant themes of a plot. This is Baz Luhrmann’s film and no one else’s, much less Elvis’. Sometimes we err on the side of naiveté, thinking that playing exciting music juxtaposed with vibrant visuals automatically makes a film great, that’s a specious conception. Nevertheless, as much as the film doesn’t take me to the levels of drama I would have wanted, what it does do is leave you in awe with its way of crafting a biographical musical à la Grand Opera. Absolutely everything about Elvis is grand and so striking to the eye that it makes me appreciate Luhrmann’s mannerisms all the more, yet the itinerant, gushing romance of his glorious opus Moulin Rouge!(2001) set the bar too high for me to be completely swept away by this lavish spectacle.

It feels terribly strange to have to write about a film that bears the title of its protagonist and so far I haven’t mentioned anything significant about the content; well to be fair, the film also doesn’t tell us much about Elvis that we don’t already know. Elvis Presley’s influence is indisputable, he is to rock what Hitchcock is to cinema, and if there is one thing this production does stupendously well it is to give us peculiar sequences that bring us closer to the anarchic energy that his music and personality generated in society. Elvis was punk before punk existed or meant a philosophy of life, and in this film those qualities as a musician and as a person are transmitted with an engaging, highly provocative intensity and honesty. Although inevitably, the artificial exaggeration of the hyperactive montages and vertiginous narrative structure quickly drain the dramatic force of those singular touches leaving a film with many narrative vagaries. The trailer-esque opening captures the idiomatic formulas of biographical filmmaking with seamless intuition, is entertaining and musically stimulating, but then when we notice that the plot has an irrepressible desire to contextualize the various moments in Elvis’ life, the film stops being about Elvis and his music and tries to be more a film about Elvis and his socio-political positions.

The film is narrated from the point of view of Elvis’ opportunistic and devious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played with cartoonish and loquacious ambition by Tom Hanks. Basically, the film abides by the rules of biographical cinema in its narrative framework, the rise to stardom of the protagonist, his life in fame and ultimately his death. This production wants to draw a conclusion that in my perspective is too squishy and too subjective, yet at the end of it all, Austin Butler’s sensuous and supple performance overcomes the flaws attached to the showy nonsense and delivers a powerful rendition of Elvis Presley, not only an acting endeavor committed to every single nuance of Elvis’ passion for music, but also determined to emulate with meticulous pleasure every one of the suggestive physical movements that made Elvis on stage so iconic.

I’m left with the extroverted execution and the exhilarating interplay of music and images, nothing more. There are personalities that are complexly too great to want to portray on screen, this is one of those cases where the screen was too small for Elvis, yet as a Luhrmann film it is tantalizing even for me, and my priorities will always be form over content, so my position on this film answers for itself.

 

Matteo Bedon

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When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them. Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.

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